Disasters & Accidents

The Fukushima towns where time stopped 10 years ago

By Antonio Hermosín Gandul

Futaba, Japan, Mar 5 (efe-epa).- Time seems to have stopped a decade ago in the towns around Japan’s damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Most remain almost deserted despite the efforts of the authorities to decontaminate and revitalize the area since the nuclear disaster that was triggered by the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Newly paved but empty streets and brand-new train stations without a single passenger to be seen coexist in the restricted access area, where homes and businesses also remain abandoned.

Traces of the accident that forced the evacuation of more than 160,000 people and the closure of entire towns due to radioactive contamination are still visible in the affected areas, where the Japanese government has invested multimillion-dollar sums to try and restore a sense of normalcy that still seems far away.

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the disaster, Fukushima prefecture has been selected to host the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan, which will take place on Mar. 25 and will culminate with the opening of the Tokyo Games, scheduled for July 23.

The relay will pass through towns such as Futaba, Tomioka and Namie, within the 20-kilometer radius around the Fukushima Daiichi plant that was evacuated after the accident. Until a year ago, most of them were designated as “difficult-to-return” zones due to the excessive levels of radioactive waste emanating from the plant.

Parts of these towns have been declared habitable again by the authorities after arduous cleaning and decontamination, and equipped with new infrastructure such as civic centers, libraries and railway stations with the aim of bringing the population back.

But access to most of the municipalities is still restricted due to high radioactive contamination. Some 337 square kilometers are still designated as evacuation zones, keeping more than 36,000 people displaced.

The beautification of the sections through which the torch will pass makes some people such as Yukiko Mihara uncomfortable. She feels that the authorities and some residents of the area “want to pretend that the consequences of the catastrophe do not exist.”

After the accident, she says her family was forced to close a commercial establishment in Namie and move to another area of Japan, where they still reside.

Yasushi Niitsuma, owner of a restaurant in the same town, which has barely recovered 10 percent of its population of a decade ago, says: “It seems that they want to bring the torch route [through] to show the reconstruction, but the reconstruction has not even been completed.”

In an abandoned school in Namie that is about to be demolished, classroom blackboards still show the date, written in chalk, that would change the fate of this region.

Futaba, a town that hosts the Daiichi nuclear facilities, had 7,000 residents who were all evacuated after the accident, and none have been able to return.

In front of the train station, colorful murals painted by Japanese artists – one of them with the message “Here we go!” – await visitors.

In the neighborhood, houses are invaded by vegetation and surrounded by scattered everyday objects, and clothes, footwear and other goods covered with dust can be seen inside shops with collapsed roofs and broken windows.

In 2019 alone, the regional government spent 233 billion yen ($2.1 billion) on new infrastructure projects, economic recovery and the promotion of its products to separate them from nuclear contamination stigma, according to official data.

Part of that amount was used to rebuild the Tomioka-Namie section of the Joban railway line (running through northeastern Japan), which was reopened in March 2020 after nine years.

During a visit to the area, Efe was unable to see any passenger during the train’s transit through these stations, which display electronic indicators of the level of environmental radioactivity at their entrance.

“I am afraid that even tougher times are yet to come after these ten years,” says Mihara, who believes that “the feelings” of the people who lived in the affected area are being ignored. EFE-EPA


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